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An art film despite itself, Mary Reilly submerges the usually luminous (and lightweight) Julia Roberts in the shadows of Victorian London’s coal-fire smog and repressed sexuality. Notorious for its repeatedly postponed release dates and worked-over script—like many uneasy Hollywood productions, it tried on several endings for size—Reilly is unsatisfying, but not uninteresting. Philippe Rousselot’s gloomy cinematography alone provides enough atmosphere to

sustain it.

Director Stephen Frears, scripter Christopher Hampton, and actors Glenn Close and John Malkovich (who plays Jekyll/Hyde) are the ringleaders of the crew that denatured Dangerous Liaisons eight years ago, and they also have toyed recklessly with the tone of Valerie Martin’s novel, a smaller (but by no means slight) book. Reimagining Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde from the viewpoint of Jekyll’s faithful housemaid, Reilly is an artful meditation on human duality and evil, as well as the role of women and the working class in a time and place when both were mostly invisible. Frears and Hampton have remained faithful to Martin’s design, but have hyped it with overobvious dialogue and imagery.

Early in the film, for example, Mary (Roberts) is required to carry a large, live eel—an oversize phallus that squirms with the rude vigor of the brutish Edward Hyde—to be skinned and butchered. And though the filmmakers stage most of the story’s murders off camera, they have nonetheless made Reilly’s tale a good deal bloodier. They add a visit to an abattoir and increase the body count, appending to the list of Hyde’s victims one prominent character who does not die in Martin’s version. From the sight of Mary’s dead, gray mother stuffed in a closet to the spurting penis Hyde draws in one of Jekyll’s anatomy books—in the original, Hyde merely writes some vulgar words—the movie makes more lurid the twin Victorian horrors of murder and sex.

Still, Reilly tempers its monster-movie brazenness with art-house ambivalence. With Malkovich providing his customary unctuous charm, Hyde is a somewhat more dashing figure in the film than in the book, while Soho brothel-keeper Mrs. Farraday (Close) takes a bigger (and more cartoonish) role. These changes are not necessarily for the better, but neither have they been made purely in the interest of cheap thrills. Indeed, this is one of those unsuccessful movies that is quite watchable for what it gets right, both in narrative and sheer ambience. The box-office returns will likely rule Reilly a failure, but it’s frequently possible to glimpse the better movie it might have been.CP